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Plastic Made With Wheat Straw Cuts Ford’s Petroleum Use

Richard Levangie | Wednesday November 18th, 2009 | 2 Comments

Wheat-Straw-ford-bioplasticFor years, Ford has been experimenting with materials to cut its petroleum use, and the 2010 Ford Flex will showcase the latest fruits of its labor. The Flex’s third-row storage bin will have a 20 percent wheat straw-based plastic content.

While the change may seem small, it will cut manufacturing petroleum by 10 tons and CO2 emissions by 15 tons, and cut the storage bin’s weight by 10 percent — thereby saving the end consumer a small amount of fuel, as well. Similarly, in late September, Ford announced that it is now using soy-based foam in seat cushions and backs and interior roof covers, a change that saved 750 tons of petroleum in the manufacturing process. The soy foam is also 25 percent lighter than petroleum foam.

Bioplastics is a burgeoning industry, and the material is showing up everywhere from cell phone casing to grocery bags. But it may not be ideal for durable consumer goods like vehicles. Because of their natural fiber components, these plastics tend to absorb moisture more readily and decompose more quickly than traditional plastic — a desirable quality in plastic bags, but not in dashboards.

Ford is taking a chance with the Flex, but it’s in good hands. Its five-member, all-female Biomaterials and Plastics Research team is currently developing plastic and glass replacements from wheat straw, hemp and sawgrass, corn, sweet potatoes and beets, and it has high standards. “Our objective is to pass every requirement that exists for traditional material,” says the team’s technical leader, Debbie Mielewski. “We will either meet or beat that standard.”

Biomaterials’ other advantage is weight. Cutting vehicle weight is a strategy many automakers are using to help them meet stricter upcoming fuel economy standards. Mazda has made it a hallmark of its long-term fuel economy plan, and Ford’s commitment to weight reduction has reached out of the car’s cabin and into the motor block.

“Five years ago, no one would’ve been interested in weight reduction,” marvels Mielewski. “Now, people are interested if you can save a half a pound.”

And it’s here that the natural materials excel. Increasing the amount of bioplastics inside a vehicle — in upholstery, seats, headliner, seat belts, veneer and trim — can save as much as 20 pounds of vehicle weight, and every little bit helps.


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  • Mike

    For all those interested in Ford’s efforts to rid future cars of petroleum please visit Car and Driver’s: Ford Vehicle Buying Guide and Ford Flex Buying Guide

  • http://www.acca-consortium.org Peace

    Great article but,
    Not only is this OLD news, but tragically the team at Ford are working backwards in their effort to “pioneer” “New” Flex technology, and are hardly “taking a chance” lol.

    FLASH BACK to 1928-1941 —-

    Henry Ford had a better … super version of bio-plastic AND fuel technology as reported in:
    Popular Mechanics Magazine-Pinch Hitters for Defense- Dec. 1941 (vol 76 No.6)
    Popular Science Monthly- Mr. Ford Tells of Plans for Stronger Cars- March 1941.
    Ford’s Plastic car
    -Was made from HEMP, Sisal, and wheat straw.
    -Plastic panels were only 3/16ths of an inch thick and could withstand a blow 10x as great as steel
    without denting
    -Even the windows and windshield were plastic
    -Culmination of 12 years prior research by Ford
    -Panels were molded under hydraulic pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch
    -Recipe calls for 70% cellulose fiber plus 30% resin binder
    -Heat and chemically stable … can be charred at high temps but no amount of heat would ever soften it
    again
    -Virtually impervious to moisture
    -The only steel in the car was its tubular welded frame
    -Was a thousand pounds lighter than the comparable steel cars of the day
    and was the beginning of his dream coming true of having auto’s “grown from the ground” and another very important quote from Henry Ford- “It will be a car of darn sight better designing in every form” … “And don’t forget: The motor-car business is just one of the businesses that can find new uses from plastics made from what’s grown in the land. There’s no end to what can be done with them IF we know how!”
    Funny, this was the dream of a powerful industrialist and not some fly by night cowboy with “fancy” ideas … so the real question or “news” should be if we had this technology ready for production/market way back in the EARLY forties … what could have possible happened to us as a people/scientific body that it’s 2010 and we are JUST tapping “technology” that the very same company was about to market as cutting edge and had over a decade of research under its belt over 60 years ago?
    Well I know the answer to that one … Do you? … Really … Check out a blog I wrote about Ford a bit ago and see original footage of Ford taking an axe to a rear panel of his Hemp car at:
    http://www.acca-consortium.org/Did-you-Know–.html (towards mid page)

    Thank you for reporting on this very important and needed issue (Bio-plastics) but at the same time it is super important to report the truth … the REAL truth and the history/reasoning’s behind it.
    Remember: It’s not with the “What’s” that are where the problem really lies … it’s the all important “WHY” that drives yet escapes the most scrutiny.
    Peace from Peace

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